Theater review: 'Cat on Hot Tin Roof' smolders

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NEW YORK -- A star revival can seem to be more about the star than the play, the star often being the essential prerequisite. Witness Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which is so often dominated in the imagination by the determinedly seductive Maggie the Cat.

So cast Scarlett Johansson and you'd seem to have a classic star vehicle. Ms. Johansson certainly has the equipment: curvaceous figure, pouty lips, throaty voice. But unlike some movie stars, she is also a fine stage actor, as she proved three years ago in her first Broadway foray, in Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge."

Here, paradoxically, she is more actor than star. Once you get past her curves, you discover her Maggie is no heroine but a determined young woman with the feral instincts of a survivor. (Anne Boleyn should have had so much determination.) She reminds us that Maggie is only part of a triangle, her relationship with Brick (and through him Big Daddy) being at most equal to Brick's with Big Daddy and the accusing ghost of his dead friend, Skipper.

So the result of this revival, directed by former Pittsburgher Rob Ashford, is to rediscover that the handsome self-loathing Brick is really the central character, even though Maggie and Big Daddy talk rings around him.

For Maggie, all that talk displays frantic energy. There's never any doubt that this scrappy, tenacious Maggie will prevail. Ms. Johansson's only shortfall is that her deep voice and Southern accent can make her hard for a Northern ear to understand.

Benjamin Walker is a gorgeous, indolent Brick, drawing your eye even in his obdurate silence. But you see in him the weakness of the second generation. It's Maggie and Big Daddy who share the energy of the pioneer.

The latter is Ciaran Hinds, imposing in personality if not presence. Like Maggie, he does not tower over the stage, either literally or figuratively. Instead, he fills out his part of what we see is really a family tragedy -- albeit with its grotesque humor, thanks to sister-in-law Mae and her brood of no-neck monsters. Extending the sense of family dysfunction is the very assured Big Mama of Debra Monk.

And who knew that the play had so many other servants and hangers-on? However big or small Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy may be, they are dwarfed by the kingdom in the balance ("28,000 acres of the richest land this side of the Valley Nile"), just as in Shakespeare's history plays.

In fact, the fireworks and storm that accompany the celebration of Big Daddy's birthday and the revelation of his fatal cancer feel Wagnerian in scope. In contrast, the humans must seem puny. But Maggie will survive, and she may be able to pull Brick along with her. She is just what the title says -- no towering Cleopatra or ravenous tiger, but a cat, with lives still to spare.

Director Ashford some time back made the move from choreographer (did you notice he choreographed Sunday's Oscar show?) to director of musicals, but he has now made the less usual move to directing drama. He originally had the much-derided idea to make Skipper's ghost visible, as the presence he still is between Maggie and Brick.

He eventually dropped that, perhaps wisely, though I'm sorry not to have seen it. But his production still echoes with intimations of epic, dwarfing the humans who wander the wreckage. This is a "Cat" for a skeptical age.

"Cat" runs through March 30 at Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. Call 1-877-250-2929.


Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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